Breaking Up the Blues with Brownie McGhee

by Mark Dvorak

“Blues Is Truth,” said Brownie McGhee, smiling, almost laughing. It was the summer of 1994 and we were at the kitchen table in Brownie’s home in Oakland, California. The supper dishes had been cleared and we were near the end of a visit that lasted the better part of two days.

Brownie had been handed a guitar and he was digging in. His big hands worked the strings and familiar sounds began to fill the kitchen, sounds I had only heard before on lp or cassette. “Good tone,” he said, remarking on the borrowed instrument. He smiled again, almost laughing.

                Good mornin’ blues, blues how do you do?

                Good mornin’ blues, blues how do you do?

                I’m doin’ all right, good mornin’, how are you?

Brownie’s driving guitar style was uniquely personal and always musical. His approach to playing blues guitar was based on a concept he called “breaking up the chords.” Brownie thought of chords in terms of moveable shapes that could be improvised upon and easily adapted to different positions and different keys. “The Blues is a living thing,” he often said.

At first we think of an E chord as a specific finger shape held against the strings. When we strum, the tones E-B-E-G#-B-E ring out more or less at the same time, and produce a sound we identify as an E chord. Strum that E chord four times to a steady beat, and you’ve got one measure.

Brownie played his “moving” E chord one note at a time, breaking it up, to a shuffle rhythm. The first two notes of the figure - the sixth string, fourth fret, and the 5th string, 2nd fret - are G# and a B respectively. Both tones are common to the organization we earlier identified as an E chord. After that, the sequence runs up through a C# and a D - the sixth and flatted seventh scale tones - and back again. These tones, along with a swinging rhythm provide a good starting point at which to begin improvising blues Brownie McGhee style. You could call it a scale if you like, but I prefer as Brownie did, to think of it as a moveable chord shape.

Take a minute then and study the shape. I play the whole thing using only the index and ring fingers of my fretting hand, sounding the strings with the thumb of my picking hand. If we begin playing the same pattern on the 5th string, 4th fret, that gives us a swinging, bluesy, moveable A chord. Then shift the whole shape up two frets and play through a B chord.

Try out these new chord shapes to a twelve bar blues progression, using Brownie’s turnaround in the last two measures. Work at a slow tempo, striving to play evenly and with authority. Check out some of Brownie’s recordings to hear how he used this, and other moveable figures in context. Good luck, get in touch if you have a question.


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